Homes & Money: A growing investment

A landscaped garden can add pleasure, and value, to a home. But spend your money wisely, warns Penny Jackson
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Walk into a pounds 300,000 house in Battersea, south London, and the chances are that the garden will be no more than a scrappy backyard, partly concreted, with a couple of roses and the odd shrub in the narrow beds. It is not that buyers are put off - far from it - but the dramatic leap in house prices in this area seems to have left the gardens in a noticeably lower league. Expectations of imaginative design and borders bursting with life may rarely be met, but are twice as welcome when they are.

"When I do walk round and see a little pergola or a well-thought out shady area, it's a tremendous relief," Giles Underhill of Foxtons estate agents says. "Anything to break the monotony of the 95 per cent of houses that have a 25-foot paved backyard with a 12-inch border round three sides."

He is beginning to see a change, though. "If you live in a house that was until recently worth pounds 150,000, the garden might not have mattered. Now that property has gone up in value so much people are beginning to look over the garden fence."

However, anyone tempted by cheap, untried landscape gardeners should regard the plight of one new Battersea resident. She turned to the gardening pages of this newspaper for advice about the wasteland of a garden she had acquired that had clearly been "designed" by a cowboy operator.

Landscape gardeners do not come cheaply, but for anyone who feels daunted by their urban patch, professional advice can save time and money, even if its only an hour's consultation. Those going the whole hog will have to budget for thousands of pounds. The garden tends to come pretty low down the list of most people's spending priorities, despite the general rule of thumb that we should be prepared to spend as much on hard-landscaping as on the kitchen. When selling a property, the pounds 10,000 spent on worktops and cupboards is no more likely to be returned pound for pound than the outlay on paving stones in the garden. Yet the overall effect and pleasure of living with good-quality workmanship in the garden is immeasurable.

Mark Harrison of Aspen Landscape Designers and Gardeners is adamant about the importance of good paving and fencing, however limited the budget might be. "If you can't afford York stone, then don't go for something that simply imitates it. The common grey street paver can be transformed if it is set in a grid of brickwork and that will be a third of the price."

Given that Londoners, for example, are neurotic about the state of shared fencing, someone prepared to foot the cost of a brick wall would be a dream neighbour. If this is too much to hope for and the cost of creating a walled garden is beyond financial reach, then at least stay away from the revolting yellow panels, says Mr Harrison. "A close boarded fence with arris rails is always worth the investment. Custom-made trellises are wonderful. A London garden might set you back pounds 3,000, but the effect can be sensational."

So can you spend too much on your garden? No one can cost the pleasure it brings but it is no good expecting to see the money back. Marc Goldberg of Hamptons International, Hampstead, is selling a three-bedroom house which has had pounds 30-pounds 40,000 spent on the garden. It has been excavated, terraced, lawns laid by a top designer and is a spectacular small space. However no buyer in this sector will spend anything like that amount extra for it.

However, at the top end of the market, such expenditure would be entirely appropriate. "Professionally landscaping any property in north London worth more than pounds 500,000 would not be a false investment, providing it is in keeping with the house," Marc Goldberg says.

James Wilkinson of Winkworth recalls a house in Muswell Hill where a fortune had been spent on creating a three-theme garden. "The first part was English with lawns and roses, the middle French with shingle paths, and the back Italian with gazebos,white statuary and tinkling water. The house had the same attention to detail and was a bit twee for most people."

Indeed any designer worth his or her salt should take a good look at the house before suggesting what to do with the garden. And what that says about all those of us with sagging fences topped with ill-matching trellis, is anyone's guess. But solid posts in the garden are as good a clue as any as to how well a house might have been maintained. However much has been spent on a garden, the only thing that reaps real dividends and costs next to nothing is improvement of the soil. "Mulch, not money" is the message from gardeners.

Aspen 0171-228 2942; Society of Garden Designers 0181-974 9483

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